It’s a tough road to follow to become a successful artist. It takes creativity, determination, vision and business skills. You have to endure more criticism than other business owners do. But, that’s part of being in the arts. Your work is on public display, and there are those who make it their business to judge the value of your art.
I do know some who feel like their careers are kind of on a starvation diet due to lack of sales. The most prominent reason why art does not sell is that not enough qualified buyers see it.
Sometimes sales lag due to the quality of the work or materials, including framing is sub-par, or the pricing is off the mark. But, the most significant thing holding most artists back is they are not getting their work seen often enough.
Many artists and consumers believe the myth of the starving artist is due to Van Gogh. He died impoverished and mentally unstable without attaining any success or fame. In death, he is a justified and revered icon.
Somehow, artists have fallen for the belief their work only matters if it is pure and created with no commercial intent. We can’t go back and ask Van Gogh, but I bet he would have enjoyed selling his work.
The starving artist myth came from Frenchman Henri Murger. In his book, Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, he told glamorized tales of a group of struggling artists in 1851. They included a musician, poet, sculptor, painter, and philosopher living in the Bohemian quarter of Paris. Murger made his stories about the problems of finding food and shelter while striving for artistic success seem whimsical and romantic.
Unfortunately, he did an excellent job because artists and others continue to buy into this romanticized myth of the starving artist. To me, it’s bunk. It’s the equivalent of thinking soap operas resemble real life.
You did not get to decide the circumstances of where you were born, who your parents are and much more. You do have the choice to take control of your career and direct it to the success you desire.
One of the most common problems I see is artists getting in their way. They cling to weird notions of the starving artist syndrome. Or, they choose wishful thinking instead of decisive action. They dream of Getting Found while their successful counterparts follow this advice:
Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work. ― Chuck Close
If you hold the belief or hope that getting found is how you will become successful, you are self-delusional. That’s not to say it’s impossible. Anything can happen, but your chances are slim and none.
Yes, there are modern-day mythical stories of artists who got found and great fame seemingly without a struggle. Here is a quote from Blouinartinfo.com on the meteoric rise of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career:
From a troubled but well-off Brooklyn family — his dad, a wealthy accountant, owned a building on Pacific Street where the family lived, and Jean-Michel was a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum at six — Basquiat rose to fame at the time of the art world’s brief and fraught infatuation with graffiti, the major cultural form of New York in the bankrupt ’70s.
Basquiat, however, was never really part of the Bronx-based graffiti scene, and his street works were aimed squarely at Soho, which is to say, at gaining the attention of the mainly white downtown creative set. It worked.
He went from making offbeat text-based street art as SAMO to selling out gallery shows for hundreds of thousands of dollars in just a two short years at the beginning of the ’80s. He would date Madonna, hang out with Warhol, and become a human symbol of ’80s money’s coked-up infatuation with art (literally in the case of the infamous “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of the American Artist” cover story for New York Times Magazine).
Examples like those of Basquiat are fun to learn about, but damaging to believe fame and fortune will be thrust upon artists. There is not enough of that kind of luck to go around. The only luck you can reliably count on is the luck you make for yourself.
Besides, Basquiat was a consummate hustler who lived in the right place at the right time for him to scheme to make and promote his art. Not exactly like the lives of artists I know today.
The harder I work, the luckier I get. – Samuel Goldwyn
The come back to reality from such quaint notions about getting found is neither you nor anyone you know can count on the sudden appearance of an unexpected benefactor. There is irony for those who suffer from the Getting Found benefactor syndrome. It is the most predictable outcome for them is an art career starving for sales and attention.
Stories like those of Basquiat’s career arc continue to feed the myths and mess up the thinking of many artists. Basquiat must have had hundreds of thousands of contemporaries who yearned for success like his. For them, it never happened.
Before you embark, do yourself a favor and make a Plan B, and Plan C because the odds for Plan A are awful. The results are always in the numbers. You cannot control statistical improbabilities. I know you cannot control whether you will gain rock star status.
A more realistic plan is one where you seize control of your career. Rather than dreaming, you make it very probable you can succeed when you execute a believable, achievable plan. When you turn the idea of getting found into one of you taking charge and making actions, you will find your success and find your buyers. You will gain tremendous power. It’s like taking an atrophied muscle and working and pumping it until it meets its potential.
You start by accepting you are in charge of what happens in your career. You can’t leave this to anyone else, and never to chance. You then determine what it is you want from your career.
Until you have a firm grasp on what you want from your career, you are going nowhere. You can use the best tools, and be a smart marketer who uses them skillfully. Without a vision to guide you to what you want from your career, you’ll be going nowhere fast.
Before you climb the ladder of success, make sure you have leaned it against the right wall.
You can decide you want a career as a professional artist. You ought to earn enough from selling art and other things such as workshops, leading art tours, or writing books.
You can decide you are happy to earn a part-time income from your art sales just to cover your art supplies and incidental expenses of a serious art hobby.
You might choose to sell your art to earn income for retirement, to travel, or supplementing your full-time job income. It’s your choice, and it’s all good no matter what you choose.
Knowing what you want so you can explain it to yourself and others is your crucial starting point. Pursuing success when you lack a clear vision of what success means to you is pointless futility. You need to start with clear goals — ones that are attainable on a stretch.
No matter how long it takes you. No matter how painful the process, you have to do the work to get this down. Until you can state with clarity what you want from your career, it’s a waste to start marketing your art.
Once your goals are set and clear, you can begin to work on meeting them. Are your goals are to gain recognition and sell more of your art? Then you should start by finding buyers, galleries, and distribution channels. Read on.
Your success will come from building, nourishing and replenishing your growing network of customers and distribution channels, including galleries. You must make this an integral, necessary part of your daily routine. You can’t leave getting these things done to chance. For sure, you can’t wait until you feel like working on them.
Having discipline in making your art and marketing is what gives you the best odds of creating the success you desire. Let’s just put doing necessary things, even when you don’t feel like it, in the “Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy” category.
I believe developing 100, or more direct buying collectors is the best thing an artist can do to strengthen their career. One cannot overstate the power of a personal one-to-one relationship with someone who likes you and likes your art.
For some artists, the idea of networking, whether in person or online, to meet collectors is a challenging one. The thought of it stresses them out. I have three words for those in this situation, “Get over it!” That’s not being harsh. It’s real. The reality is, as mentioned above, you have a choice.
You can choose to put yourself into situations out of your comfort zone. For your career to flourish, you must make concessions to feelings about doing uncomfortable things. I suggest having a soul-searching conversation with yourself.
Acknowledge that part of you that wants to recede and avoid working on networking. Accept that feeling uncomfortable, even painfully so, is the main reason you don’t want to do networking. Then tell yourself, and emphasize to the reluctant and potent part of you, that you and your reluctant self are going to have to learn to live with it.
What you’ll find once you put on your professional artist pants and get out there is that your anticipation of how awful taking such decisive action to further your career was way more than actually doing it.
You can do almost anything if you want it enough, excluding physical limitations. No amount of trying will ever let me dunk a basketball. But, it’s likely I can become an excellent shooter and dribbler if I work hard enough on it.
You can learn to mingle online and offline with potential collectors. You will probably find it’s quite pleasant once you get started. In my How to Find Art Buyers Workshop, I teach you how to do this without ever going to some useless Chamber of Commerce meeting or its equivalent.
You can become an excellent networker. One who learns to turn contact with potential buyers of your work into opportunities. It’s within your grasp. You can do this, and much more if you want to meet your goals. You work too hard at making great art to let yourself down on getting it seen and collected.
The internet is the great disrupter of our lifetime. It has changed everything. It has killed many businesses and altered others in ways so that you almost don’t recognize them. It has also opened the door for artists to have useful, affordable tools to communicate and sell to collectors with no intermediary. So it’s created all kinds of other opportunities as well.
For the first time, artists have the tools to create awareness of their work never known to previous generations. Likewise, buyers’ habits have changed, and as never before they are open to buying direct from artists. You can build an impressive online identity and promote your digital brand.
Valuable as a personal, digital brand is, it’s not enough to build the career you want. You have to go a step further. You have to find ways to get inside the same groups as your best prospects. It’s how you can affiliate (network) with them before you sell them — brilliant if I say so myself. (Never be afraid to toot your own horn!)
The internet offers artists opportunities to find prospects and join groups to which they belong. I call it customer hunting. The advantage to this is you are never cold calling when trying to connect with potential buyers who you associate with in some other way.
It takes little imagination to realize how much more efficient getting your art seen and sold is compared to showing up with hat in hand asking a stranger to buy your art. I teach you how to do this in my workshop, too.
The internet is a research tool to find potential collectors, galleries and distribution channels. You can use digital marketing tools to make contact with your prospects, to befriend them, or cause them to become aware of you. The more you know about someone or a group of people, the easier it becomes to get to know them and develop meaningful relationships with them.
You only have so many hours, dollars and resources to spend on marketing. You need to use your resources and tools, so you get the best return on your investment in them.
Start by evaluating what works best for you. Determine what things you cannot get by without doing, such as website and email marketing. Create an organized approach to sending out marketing messages.
Too many businesses, not just artists, waste their marketing because it has no focus. A little of this and a little of that without a master plan is a prescription for failure.
Focusing your attention and efforts only on the most crucial things is the key to your success. You need to coordinate your marketing efforts, so they go out at the right time to the right people and with powerful, related messages. These actions are how you get the most exceptional value for marketing your work.
Create systems to urge, remind, and entertain your prospects with correlated messages. Mixing your messages with a variety of methods improves response, results, and efficiency.
To have success as an artist today, you need to do these six things:
There is nothing mysterious about any of these six things. It may not be apparent to you how to do them all, but it’s not that difficult to learn about them either. The information is out there. The harder part is getting your arms and head around them all at once, and then taking disciplined action.
If you have been deluding yourself with wishful thinking, it’s not fatal. You can stop, and you can change. If your fear of change or doing things that will make you uncomfortable is holding you back, you need to “Get over it,” because you can.
Stop thinking about how to get found. Start finding buyers, galleries, and collectors whose interest will make your career successful. They are out there, and you can find them. Moreover, you can enter into their worlds in a variety of ways, so they get to know you as much as a person before they know you as an artist.
Are you struggling in a solo environment with no one to talk about your business? Then start looking for an accountability partner. Join a mastermind group, or find a coach who can help you stay on point and motivated. You don’t have to go it alone. Figure out what will work best for you and start doing it.
To sell art, you need to show it to enough qualified buyers on a steady basis. It’s not advanced calculus; it’s arithmetic. You need to build a base of loyal patrons, customers and fans one-by-one. Make art that amazes them that they want to buy. Use a system to inform, educate and delight your tribe on a consistent basis. Do these things, and you will create enduring success.